HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON The Modern Century
April 11-June 28, 2010 | Museum of Modern Art
Resister Camus on the streets of Paris in 1944. Gandhi’s ashes on a train. China in transition, 1948-1958. The military in Iran in 1950. A non-judgmental camera, maybe, but a trenchant triggerman.
Plenty of ink has already been spilled about the current MoMA exhibition of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the peripatetic, paradigmatic professional, and a concise review of such a teeming exhibition of a life’s work is impossible without unforgiveable omissions—literally and interpretively. But there are certain sharp epiphanies of context, form, and metaphor that bear reflection, and that may have, perhaps, been underobserved.
A brief cavil: The entrance to the exhibition is three walls of bewildering regional maps (as opposed to, say, a single world map) of Cartier-Bresson’s hurricane travels, conveying the accurate, overwhelming impression that he traveled more extensively than anyone else, ever, eclipsing Magellan several times over. Nevertheless, the incorporation of individual maps into the actual exhibition’s milestone caption panels would have enhanced understanding.
The exhibition contains four photographic types: travel photojournalism, celebrity portraits, fine art photography, and corporate commissions (e.g. Bankers Trust)—the last, which should have been omitted, is not worth discussing. In the three former, secret subtexts emerge, revealing Cartier-Bresson’s complex genius.
Cartier-Bresson’s photojournalistic pictures, which dominate the exhibition, are naïvely satisfying—the everyday lives of everyday men, women, and children, the documentation of the human story. They are practically alive: you are there, or wish to be, for instance, at the hillside picnic, “Orgosolo, Sardinia, Italy” (1962), awestruck, perhaps, by the primitive pulse and literal ephemerality of life on this strange planet. It is in these photos that the first epiphany of context emerges. A viewer must know a bit of history to appreciate the photo of a crowd of Chinese “Seeing Television for the First Time” (1958), or a series of photos of China’s “Great Leap Forward” from the same year. Indeed, in 1958, Chairman Mao was presiding over the greatest mass extinguishment of human life to date, as an estimated 30 million Chinese died in the famine precipitated in part by Mao’s Great Sparrow campaign, designed to exterminate all of the sparrows in China (the reason being that sparrows ate grain, this failing to take into account that sparrows also ate insect pests). Did Cartier-Bresson know? Could he smell the bodies? Or, as a Chinese acquaintance once told me, hey, 30 million was only five percent of the population of around 600 million, so it would “hardly be noticed.” In “Tent City, near Somerville, Tennessee” (1961), which documented the eviction of African Americans who dared register to vote, Cartier-Bresson was more contextually explicit. Another example is a sleeper in the show: “The pill, Pharmaceutical Factory, California” (1967). The advent of the birth control pill was one of the most socially transformative events in history, and the Pill wasn’t legalized in France until the end of 1967. Lack of context, in fact, is the exception in Cartier-Bresson’s photographs, which demand an educated, or at least probing, viewer.
Although Cartier-Bresson was not primarily a purposeful “fine art” photographer, to deny the transcendental æstheticism of his work would be absurd. The obvious “Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris” (1932), in which a black-and-white Magritte-like, puddle-jumping man and his aquatic shadow float midair, is underrated. Ditto “Allée du Prado, Marseille” (1932), the caped aristocratic gentilhomme before a winter’s naked colonnade of branches. It’s also useful to compare him to, say, Man Ray or Edward Weston: his late “Pause Between Two Poses” (1989), a landscape, mirrored, headless pair of female nudes is timeless and clever—and ironic from a male whose traffic was in faces. And his early, plaster wall “Valencia, Spain” (1933) bespeaks Brassaï’s contemporary, seminal, asemically poetic broken windows—“Sans titre” (1934). And the off-kilter whitewashed wall—“Madrid” (1933)—with its accidental, pre-Le Corbusier, Ronchamp cathedral windows and boys, is cinematic.
Formally, if the show is representative, Cartier-Bresson exclusively composed in rectangles, the single exception being the square format woman’s face (“Montmartre, Paris” 1931). He used landscape for panoramic sweep or motion (frontal and parallel), such as the confrontational “Student Demonstration, Paris” (1968), in which the viewer is about to be trampled by the marchers. It is, however, his portrait format that holds the most power, first because it is constricting and therefore intimate, and second because the focus is bottom foreground, while the top background frequently contains a subtle second story. A random example: a prostitute, leaning through a cat flap door, “Calle Cuauhtemoctzin, Mexico City” (1934-1935). There is the unseen room upstairs. Literal portraits of the seemingly amnesiac rags-to-riches Coco Chanel and Colette are languorously haughty; in the former hangs a symbolic mantle mirror; in the latter, the acclaimed litterateur’s companion Pauline gazes away, a human caption floating overhead.
But most important is metaphor. Traversing this exhibition, one imagines Cartier-Bresson’s satisfaction at seeing demonstrated the real, hidden function of the portrait format, which the travel route maps at the entrance fail to express: each photograph is a virgule on the timeline of history, of his subjects’ lives, and of our own as we progress through this exhibition frame by frame. Like Whitman’s lucky soul, these ticks of time affixed in silver salts by the arresting eye of Cartier-Bresson reveal at last our fleet, mundane divinity. Merci, Monsieur, pour ce cadeau.